Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Lewd and Scandalous Books Exhibition

During the break at Monash University, between first and second semester, I have been putting together an exhibition under the title "Lewd and Scandalous Books." It is a huge amount of work curating an exhibition, much more than I expected, and it wouldn't have been possible if it were not for the tireless effort, patience etc of Stephen Herrin who deserves a title much more grand than "Rare Books Assistant Librarian." ("The Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand's Silver Jubilee Prize winner" is another of his handles. Not very snappy, but eminently respectible. See here.)

So, what have I done with Stephen's help? I have had to select hundreds of texts, texts that both develop the exhibition theme and also look good; group them and arrange them in a sequence that fits the available display cases, and makes the most of the size and visibility of each cases while maintaining that sequence; then edit the book descriptions and write the gnomic catalogue text (for hard copy and online catalogues, which use different text) and an Introduction; I have also written a few promotional spiels for the exhibition (see one below) and now I must prepare a short speech for the launch. (I have also had to part with a number of items that I would rather have kept, so that they could appear in the exhibition, on the catalogue and posters etc.) The invitations have now started circulating and the hard-copy catalogue will be printed next week. It is all, almost, done.

* * * * *

The exhibition launch will be the opening event for the 2010 BSANZ Conference in Melbourne, To Deprave and Corrupt: Forbidden, Hidden and Censored Books. (See my blog entry here.) I first proposed the exhibition theme (hurriedly, and on the phone) to Rare Books Librarian Richard Overell when I was putting together my ARC proposal in late 2005 (for 2006). He quickly agreed.

What I had in mind then, and what has now—amazingly—come to pass, is that I organise a BSANZ conference on the theme of my ARC research ("The Dissemination and Control of Clandestine Writing in England 1695–1774") and a matching exhibition of material at Monash (to be launched at the event) as a way of publicising my research and getting feedback on it. (Since I am given to grand planning, I also considered the possibility of encouraging Pam Pryde at the Baillieu Library, Melbourne University, and Des Cowley at the State Library to undertake similarly themed exhibitions.) Those familiar with ARC research fellowship applications will recognise that this sort of thing goes under "E6: Communication of Results."

Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful with my 2005 application, but I tweaked and repeated it after another year of teaching—including the proposal for a conference and an exhibition—and was successful. From 2007–9, while I conducted research on eighteenth-century erotica I tried to make sure that the conference and exhibition(s) that I had proposed would actually occur. In 2007, when I suggested to Pam a complementary exhibition on banned books in Australia for the 2010 conference, she thought it was a long way away, but a great idea (Three years later Melbourne University has a terrific exhibition on this subject. See here). So, despite a few hiccups, and after much sweet-talking (and the occasional application of a rhetorical mallet), almost all my ducks have lined up: ARC, Conference, Monash and Baillieu Library exhibitions. Nice.

The missing duck in this row is my own paper on eighteenth-century erotica that I intended to deliver at the Melbourne conference. The reason for this omission is the realisation—which dawned on me mid-2009—that there is no way on earth I could spend my first year writing and teaching full time, help organise an international conference, curate an exhibition and retain my sanity. So I dropped my paper. I will have ample opportunities to speak on my subject afterward and I can sit back and listen at the conference itself. The papers by Assoc. Prof. Caroline Breashears, Nathan Garvey and Aleksondra Hultquist (among many others) should be a real treat.

And, on the subject of our international conference, this I have only helped to organise. I may have chosen the theme, the artwork, designed the poster and got things moving with the BSANZ and the exhibitions—so some may mistakenly believe that I did a lot more—but the heavy organisational lifting in 2010 has been done by Simone Murray. I knew the theme would be popular, and the response to the first poster was great, but it is largely as the result of Simone's work that the conference is on track to be the largest and best publicised BSANZ conference for many years.

* * * * *
Lewd and Scandalous Books

Although the Rare Books Collection at Monash University does not specialise in the collection of erotica, it is a testament to the breadth and quality of the collection that Dr Patrick Spedding has been able to put together an exhibition that so fully illuminates the erotic book trade. The exhibition focusses on "Lewd and Scandalous Books" from the eighteenth century, and the reprints of these works—many banned for hundreds of years—throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

With the exception of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, many of the books Spedding has chosen are likely to be unfamiliar to visitors. And, although many of the topics, tropes and themes are familiar—the sex-scandals and vice of the rich and famous—these works are also likely to have lost some of their sting in a world where the public figures are no longer known and when three or four keystrokes can unleash a flood of pornographic images. It is almost inevitable, then, that many of the books exhibited will seem a little tame and restrained, even quaint and cute, to our eyes.

But this exhibition contains rare literary and visual material that has been restricted and suppressed and which circulated for more than two centuries only in tiny numbers in privately printed and clandestine editions. And, liberal as we undoubtedly are today, much of it still has the power shock. Even the most worldly among us would hesitate to quote the purple passages of Catullus, Rochester or Wilkes in public and nobody would place an unexpurgated edition of the works of these authors on the shelves of a high-school library.

The Exhibition launch 14 July 2010, 5PM

Drinks and nibbles provided

• Welcome to the Conference by Prof. Lynette Russell, Monash University Acting Dean of Arts
• Welcome to the University Library by Cathrine Harboe-Ree, Monash University Librarian
• Exhibition opening by Dr Patrick Spedding, Assoc. Director, Centre for the Book, Monash University

Rare Books Collection at Monash University (here)
BSANZ Conference website (here)

[UPDATE 16 July 2010: the exhibition has now gone live; you will find a blurb about the exhibition, a "virtual exhibition" (full of photos) and you can download the catalogue here]

No comments: